Music Therapy

Dr. Swami Shankardevananda Saraswati, MB, BS (Syd)

It is time for the power of music to be reinstated as an aid to healing and regeneration. With a little imagination music could be used to ease the tensions accumulated during a hard day at work, soothe a headache, lift depressed emotions and even stimulate enthusiasm and inspiration.

Though we experience the effects of music and sound throughout our whole waking lives, we have not developed a modern science of sound. Once we become aware of the role of sound and music in our lives and their effects on our consciousness, we can manipulate them to produce desired effects. This has practical application at home, work and in hospitals. Nada yoga, kirtan and mantra, when woven into the total yogic framework, are a useful and powerful basis for the science of music therapy.


Rhythm is one of the most basic and powerful elements in music, exerting an intense and immediate effect on the physical and emotional bodies. It is well known that the tribal rhythms of Africa were used by witchdoctors and healers to induce a trance state in which malignant and subconscious forces were liberated in the healing experience.

The physical body itself is in a constant state of motion. Each organ and cell has its own rhythm, e.g. the heartbeat, respiration, muscular contractions and brainwaves, to name the most basic. There are a multitude of body rhythms and a healthy body/mind is one which has all the various individual rhythms harmoniously working in concert. Yogis have known of this rhythmic alternation in the body/mind and have developed techniques in accord with the basic natural flows of subtle energies. These flows are called ida and pingala. The science of swara yoga is based on the rhythmic alternation of the body from ida dominance to pingala dominance and back again. Scientists have lately discovered this change in basic rhythms of the body in a ninety minute alternating cycle, called ultradian rhythms.

Tone, chords, melody

Apart from rhythm, which is composed of tempo (speed) and meter (grouping of beats), other components of music are also important. Tone is the resonance of the note being played, and each note has its own quality according to the frequency of its vibrations. Chords are groups of notes struck together. Melody is the succession of tones and chords, played with a certain rhythm or timing.

These components of music, when combined in a melodic form, can produce in both the player and listener various emotions, moods and mental states ranging from animal passion to sublime spiritual insights and ecstasy. When we are sad, we tend to like emotional, sentimental music and when we are happy we tend to like vivacious, dynamic music. At the same time, devotional music such as kirtan can greatly uplift the emotions to the experience of bhakti yoga or the mathematical precision of Bach's music, and an Indian raga can stimulate gyana, knowledge.

Putting the body out of tune

Disharmonious rhythms, tones and melodies create disturbances in the physical and mental bodies Steve Halpern, a musician and director of Spectrum Research Institute in Palo Alto, California, believes that dissonance and lack of harmony can actually put the body out of tune.*1 The mechanisms involved in musical appreciation in the brain may somehow affect other body organs disharmoniously, at least temporarily, and perhaps permanently in those predisposed to it.

Researchers at the Veterans Administration Hospital in San Diego, Daniel Kripke and his co-workers, have shown that manic depression may be caused by 'out of tune' brain cycles.*2 They showed that when the cycles go out of phase 'beat phenomena' occur; that is, instead of smooth flowing curves, we have sudden drops from one extreme of behaviour to the other. They correlated mood with such physiological changes as blood pressure and temperature.

Stanley Friedman of Mt. Sinai School of Medicine has suggested that psychosomatic illness may reflect a disturbance of the ninety minute rhythms of the body.*3 He thinks that stress may cause "this cycle to be desynchronised, leading to erratic hormone output and activity in the central and autonomic nervous systems". Preliminary evidence was found in neurodermatitis patients.*4

Physical, mental and emotional effects

The inner rhythms of the body have to work together to maintain health while we move through time and space. We are constantly being bombarded by a barrage of sounds. These sounds are either natural or man made, harmonious or disharmonious, energising or debilitating, audible or below the threshold of hearing. Whatever their origin or nature, sounds constantly impinge on our hearing apparatus even while we are asleep and these sounds affect our minds and emotions. For example, we experience joy while listening to birds singing, relaxation with patter of rain on a roof and emotional upheaval with a thunderstorm, a raging sea or a volcanic eruption.

The whole earth is vibrating with its own internal activity. Many of these sounds are actually detrimental to our health. Animals, being more attuned to nature, are more sensitive to subtle, sub audible vibrations. Fish, deer and rabbits have been known to foretell earthquakes hours before they occur, in a form of precognition. There are places where animals will not sleep because of disharmonious vibrations and even sensitive humans such as yogis, shamans and witchdoctors have made certain areas taboo because of their adverse effects on health.

Man made sounds may also be deleterious to our health. The vibrations of jack hammers, cars and air conditioning units in buildings have been proven to cause symptoms of recklessness, euphoria, lowered efficiency, dizziness due to loss of balance, nausea and even convulsions, as well as car accidents.*5

The yogic antidote

When music is superimposed on the biological organism certain internal changes take place. Great singers, such as Caruso, dramatically demonstrate this principle when they shatter glass with their voice by singing a certain note whose frequency resonates exactly with that of the glass. In a therapeutic situation we use this principle to either speed up the depressed internal rhythms of mental depression or a hypo metabolic disease state, or slow down the accelerated rhythms of hypertension, anxiety, and so on.

The effect of kirtan when practised regularly, superimposes simple, steady and regular rhythms, in association with harmonious melody, inspirational themes and the power of mantra, on our inner rhythms. If the inner rhythms are healthy they will be reinforced and sublime spiritual heights may be reached. If the inner rhythms are diseased, chaotic or out of phase with each other, then a profoundly soothing effect will be felt. Kirtan is an antidote to noise pollution and the stresses of modern living.


Kirtan and other forms of nada yoga are distinguished from normal musical experience because they incorporate the science of mantra. Mantras powerfully influence the whole personality. Yogis know that each sound has a specific effect and stimulates a certain area of the brain and consciousness. The mantras, whether chanted audibly or mentally, spread a benevolent influence in ever increasing circles, rippling through our body and mind like stones thrown into a pond.

Sounds also have associated shapes, called yantras in yogic terminology. These are the shapes seen in the sand on a metal plate when it is vibrated by certain sounds. At the subconscious and unconscious levels of the mind, sounds take geometric and archetypal form. The sound O produces a perfectly rounded sphere. The sound M produces a point. Thus the waves produced by a mantra like Om move concentrically outward and simultaneously convey the impression of the circle becoming the point. This has a fantastic effect on our body and mind.

Studies on the mantra Om at Satyananda Ashram in Barcelona, Spain, show that Om produces alpha and theta brainwaves, and these are associated with relaxation, creativity and healing when found in the meditative experience. This experience is open to everyone who utilises music in a yogic setting.


*1, 'Music and rhythm: In harmony with the brain?', Brain/Mind Bulletin, 3(18), August 7, 1978.
*2. 'Mood disorders tied to body-rhythm disturbance', Brain/Mind Bulletin, 3(19), August 21, 1978.
*3, *4. Ibid
*5. Tempest, W., 'Noise Makes Drivers Drunk', London Observer, November 28, 1971.
*6. Watson, Lyall, Supernature, Coronet, 1974, p. 92.